Hard bargaining as Turkey and EU tackle refugee crisis
Istanbul - The European Union and Turkey are getting down to hard bargaining as Brussels desperately seeks solutions to the migrant crisis engulfing Europe while Turkey is trying to draw concessions from the Europeans in return for steps to stem the flow.
Turkey, a direct neighbour of war-torn Syria, has taken in more than 2 million Syrian refugees and is the most important transit hub for migrants travelling to Europe. About 580,000 refugees, among them 200,000 Syrians, arrived in Germany between January and September; the country registered more than 400,000 additional refugees from early September through mid-October.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has come under increasing pressure at home to reduce refugee numbers, travelled to Istanbul on October 18th for talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. She said she was ready to increase financial help for Turkey to cope with the influx from Syria and vowed to speed up talks about Turkey’s bid to become a member of the European Union.
Merkel tested the waters following an October 16th announcement by the EU Commission that said Brussels had reached a broad agreement with Turkey to tackle the refugee crisis. Under the deal, Turkey is supposed to do more to keep Syrians from fleeing towards Europe by tightening border security in return for up to $3.4 billion in aid and new steps to revive Turkey’s comatose membership talks.
But in a sign that the real bargaining is just beginning, Turkey shot down the EU statement about an agreement and said talks had only produced a “draft”.
Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu rejected current EU offers. “There is a financial package proposed by the EU and we told them it is unacceptable,” Sinirlioglu said. The proposed $3.4 billion could only be seen as a starting point. “If ([the EU] delivers 3 billion euros ($3.4 million) in the initial phase, it would be meaningful,” he said.
Turkey says it has spent about $8 billion caring for Syrian refugees; the country has built more than 20 refugee camps housing about 280,000 people.
“Unfortunately Turkey was left alone by the international community in terms of burden sharing,” Davutoglu said after he met with Merkel. “We are very pleased there is a better approach now.”
Knowing Turkey is in a key position to ease the refugee crisis in Europe, Turkish leaders have listed a set of demands. Besides calling for more money, Ankara is pressing for the opening of five new areas, or chapters, in Turkey’s EU accession talks, which started ten years ago but have made little headway.
Turkey has completed talks on 14 out of 35 negotiation chapters, with 17 chapters blocked either because of the row over the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus or because of opposition to Turkey’s bid by individual EU members.
Also, the government is calling on the European Union to ease travel restrictions for Turks in Europe, an issue very important to many Turkish citizens who currently have to undergo a long and costly visa procedure. Davutoglu told Merkel he hoped that visa-free travel could start in the middle of 2016.
At the same time, Turkey could implement a so-called readmission agreement, under which Turkey would be obliged to take back all refugees who have entered the European Union via Turkish territory. That step could greatly relieve pressure on EU countries.
Merkel said the European Union and Turkey would cooperate “on dynamising the accession process”. The chancellor also said one negotiation chapter could be opened before the end of the year. Visa liberalisation for Turks travelling to the European Union’s Schengen zone was also on the cards. “The talks in that direction are very promising and will be continued,” Merkel said.
Following Merkel’s visit, pro-government media in Turkey welcomed what they presented as Germany’s promise to end visa requirements. “Visa-free Europe” ran the headline in the Takvim daily.
But not all are happy with the decision by the Turkish government to extract concessions from the European Union in return for turning Turkey into what political scientist Savas Genc called a “cheap hostel for refugees”. Turkey could end up with a growing refugee problem and become a “powder keg”, Genc told The Arab Weekly. “The EU is acting very egoistically. The EU does not want to solve the problem. It wants to limit the number of people arriving there.”
Murat Erdogan, an expert on migration at Ankara’s Hacettepe University, said the proposed deal between the European Union and Turkey would not stem the flow of refugees to Europe. “This is more than just a financial problem,” he said. “The EU and Turkey should sit down and work out a regional refugee policy.”
Measures under discussion, which include a proposal to process asylum claims by refugees for Western countries while the claimants are still in Turkey, would attract even more people to Turkey, Murat Erdogan said. He said there were signs that more refugees from Syria were arriving in Turkey, while numbers in other host countries, such as Jordan, were falling.
“If we agree to send some refugees to Germany, France, Canada or other countries, then others will have hope that it will work for them as well and they will come to Turkey,” he said.
As a transit country, Turkey would have to cope with steadily rising refugee figures. “Out of 100,000 people arriving here, maybe 10,000 can go on to Europe but the rest will stay,” Murat Erdogan said.